Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #19 - Liam Neeson

photo by Georges Biard

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Batman Begins
Love Actually
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Les Misérables
Schindler's List

Liam Neeson, like many actors, cut his teeth taking up small supporting roles that did not give him much of a chance to shine. But even in those, he had an air of charisma about him as well as humor. As Keegan in Krull he was humorous, but ultimately forgetable, just like his comedic role in the Justine Bateman vehicle Satisfaction. The same could be said of turns in movies like The Deadpool or The Mission. His first major starring role was Darkman, in a performance that was so over the top that it makes modern day Al Pacino look subtle. For a while it looked as though he would be reduced to the “Oh, I know that guy who was in that thing” phase of his career.

But then in 1993, he was cast as Oscar Schindler in one of the greatest films every made: Schindler's List. Steven Spielberg was able to elicit a tour-de-force performance that was alternately subtle and searing. Neeson filled Schindler with a natural charm that just oozed out of him. You could easily see how everyone he met loved him. Even when he acted as a scoundrel by cheating on his wife or playing fast and loose with money, you couldn't help but give him your affection.

But underneath the shiny surface was the slowly awakening soul. I encourage students of acting to watch how Neeson plays Schindler as Schindler has to become and actor. Schindler has to pretend he is is friends with Nazis monsters and indifferent to the Jews all the while agonizing over the suffering he observers. His performance has so many wonderful layers, but Neeson convinces you that his still beating heart is at the core. The first time I ever cried in a movie was the end of Schindler's List when Schindler finally lets his facade go and allows himself to fully feel his sadness. Neeson shows us so well with beautiful agony the pain of a good man's soul.

This was also the first movie that I began to understand what I call the “Liam Neeson style.” If you watch his films, Neeson goes out of his way to make his words sounds spontaneous, unrehearsed, as if they just came to his mind the moment he speaks them. This is, of course, the goal of all actors. But Neeson does it in a way that makes that spontaneous completely believable. Even in a film like The Phantom Menace, Neeson speaks his lines with that off-the-cuff cadence that makes his character sound different than all of the others. Everything he says is believable, whether he is tearing up over his dead wife in Love Actually or telling Bruce Wayne that he will destroy Gotham in Batman Begins.

Neeson's transformative nature as an actor is also excellent. His turn as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables is amazing. His Valjean is a rough, beastly criminal who tries to live a transformed life. But that edge of violence is never far from the civilized mayor. And Neeson perfects that haunted, hunted look in his eyes when going toe to tow with Geoffrey Rush's Javier. It was fascinating to watch how he let the form and pressure of time weight down his body without losing any of his internal strength.

That transformation can also be seen in the ironic characterization of Bryan Mills in Taken. I am convinced one of the things that sets this movie apart from others is the primal theme: fathers will defend their daughters at any cost. But what sells that theme is Neeson's performance. The script and directing are serviceable. But it is Neeson who grounds it. In the beginning he embodies what many see themselves as: not rich, unappreciated, devoted, ignored. But when the action begins, he becomes what all men want to be: masculine, strong, assertive, confident, smart, and commanding. Neeson is able to pull both characteristics off without ringing false in either of them.

Neeson is enjoying the rejuvenation of his career, and if that means that we can see more of his amazing talent on the big screen, then more power to him.


  1. You forgot his stellar performance in "The Grey". Not my kind of movie, but well made and a good job by Neeson.

    1. I wanted to put it on there but I haven't seen it. I've heard nothing but rave reviews for Neeson's performance even from people who did not like the movie.